KNOXVILLE — Just call them the CSI of presidential artifacts. Staff of the Andrew Jackson Papers Project at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, once again are being credited with solving a history mystery.
Letter by President Andrew JacksonThe group that has been in the news several times in recent years for authenticating letters and debunking myths has now helped recover a 185-year-old letter written by President Andrew Jackson that was stolen from the New York State Library and Archives.
Research Assistant Professor Tom Coens is the hero of this latest story.
The four-page letter, written by Jackson on March 25, 1824, to Major Samuel Swartwout, was one of many historic documents stolen from the New York State Library by former state archivist Daniel Lorello. Lorello pleaded guilty to grand larceny in August 2008 and is serving two to six years in prison.
Lorello sold some of the documents; some had been hawked on eBay.
Coens had been following the Lorello story. Because UT’s Jackson Papers Project tracks and catalogs all known Jackson documents, Coens was familiar with the Jackson letter — one of the stolen documents that had not been recovered in the course of the Lorello investigation. It was one of only a handful of Jackson artifacts at the New York State Library and the only Jackson artifact among the stolen items.
In March, Coens was trolling for Jackson documents on the Internet, something he does regularly.
“I was simply keeping my eye out on the manuscript market,” he said, explaining that it’s common to see autograph collectors peddling Jackson documents — usually common artifacts, like signed passports, but occasionally letters of historical value.
On the Web site “Profiles in History,” Coens saw a Jackson letter offered for sale. He recognized it as the stolen artifact.
“I knew the moment I saw it what was going on,” he said.
Coens contacted officials at the New York State Library, who then touched base with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office, and investigators tracked down the person trying to sell the letter.
“The seller of the letter cooperated,” Coens said, indicating that the autograph dealer purchased the letter without realizing it was stolen.
Coen’s keen eye in helping recover the stolen letter was noted in a press release sent Monday by Cuomo’s office. His sleuthing also was the subject of a New York Post story on Monday.
For Coens, though, it was all in a day’s work.
“We’re not in the business of fighting crime,” he said. “But sometimes we spot these things because we keep such a close eye on Jackson documents.”
To view the full four-page letter, visit http://www.utk.edu/news/docs/jackson-swartwout.pdf.
Editor’s note: An episode of “History Detectives,” which chronicles how staff of UT’s Jackson Papers Project helped authenticate a letter written to Andrew Jackson by Junius Brutus Booth, father of Abraham Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, is scheduled to air July 6 on PBS. For a recap of that story see http://www.utk.edu/news/article.php?id=4884.